Reading in Translation

Sugar castles: I Remember Nightfall by Marosa di Giorgio, translated by Jeannine Marie Pitas

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Reviewed by Jessica Sequeira

The poems of Uruguayan writer Marosa di Giorgio (1932 – 2004) are luscious, dark and gorgeous — but they also leave the reader with a sickly taste, an effect similar to that following the rapid consumption of a bag of sticky sweets, gulped down one after another while in thrall to the violet sugar. Di Giorgio’s world deliberately provokes a very particular effect, one of simultaneous overdose and saccharinity, uneasiness and charm. Provokes is the word — for the saccharinity does not suggest gentleness, kindness, docility, generosity, or compassion, but precisely the reverse. In this domesticated decadence, sweetness always goes hand in hand with cruelty.

I Remember Nightfall is comprised of four of di Giorgio’s books from the 1960s and early 1970s: The History of Violets, Magnolia, The War of the Orchards, and The Native Garden is in Flames. In them, di Giorgio’s imagination is on full display as she creates imagery for its own sake with a limited set of words, combined and recombined in a faux-naive voice. Syrups, cakes, assassinations, strangers, thieves, sacrifices, cats, quinces, lovers, altars, roses, onions, eggs, wind, sugar, moon — you could almost write a parody of this poetry, juggling identical words into different arrangements. What makes di Giorgio’s poems work is precisely that they aren’t parodic, but (affectedly) sincere. Critics call her work ‘baroque’, but unlike other baroque writers, di Giorgio seems uninterested in linguistic fireworks. Her world is simple and repetitive, and although just as showy as the worlds of typically baroque writers, it is made up of basic components.

A child’s sense of strangeness permeates everything in this brutal, ecstatic poetry, written in solitude. A girl alone in the house will soon enter a world of her own as she plays with the cat, looks out the window, talks to the plants and invents stories to entertain herself. Unworried by the absence of company, she knows that the others will eventually return, and that she’ll be able to tell them (or not, as she prefers) what she’s been up to during the day. And so, she feels free to indulge in fears that might seem irrational to others, as well as eccentric delights that for most are hardly conceivable. The return of the others is the return of the “real world,” but in di Giorgio’s work, the others never come home — and so the girlish inventions spin on and on. The poems pay attention to the strange and sacred in everyday life, with household objects acting out magical roles: “The pages of the school textbook, alive in the air, the lobsters like scissors of silver paper, the desert wind loaded with perfume, my father’s horses galloping — always toward the south, the pale moon of the house, all the friends I didn’t have” (237).

But this little girl pose, so often the default tone of the female mystic, is not innocent. In spite of the simple vocabulary and sentence structure, one quickly discovers that di Giorgio delights in perversion, evil, secrets. “A huge curiosity came into my nails; I wanted to find out if I could kill; I sunk my nails into the back of one of the huge mice, and the smell of blood made me blissfully dizzy,” she writes (119). There is always a temptation or a threat, and sex or death is always waiting at the end of the poems (prose fragments, really). No one can trust anyone in this world of “perfumed masks,” and sweetness and horror co-exist or even overlap when “the peaches are like sinister rosebuds” (307, 41). Nothing ever just exists, or is simply neutral. The faux-naive voice is always waiting with petulance to recount a dark twist to the magic. There is great beauty in di Giorgio’s world, but also great nightmarishness.

The saccharine sweetness in di Giorgio’s work, like that of Silvina Ocampo or Hilda Hilst, requires a violent counterbalance. Sacrifice and incest abound in a far-from-innocent universe. The apocalyptic feel echoes a British line of poetry influenced by the Romantic tradition of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and makes one question the relationship between the senses, imagination, and intellect. A phantasm between direct experience and ordered reason, existing in this purgatory by choice, di Giorgio’s work see-saws between horror and the sublime, or perhaps discovers a kind of sublime in the imagined horrors that can be told. The possibilities opened up in this shadow world of pre-reasoned creation can feel invigorating, but also claustrophobic. Things take place outside of a recognizable time and place, “somewhere within eternity,” in a kind of infinite version of the house where di Giorgio grew up: “It has always seemed unreal to me, the life of our house. Now, when I question mama, she refuses to tell me anything. Nevertheless, it all ended up written here. In the Book of Honey” (227, 233).

Animals behave in unexpected ways, changing shapes or possessing features such as flames or branches that go against nature. What never happened, or may one day happen, haunts the empty spaces:

Only us on the path; and in the air: the dogs, the years, and the moon. (229)

In the cupboard plums lie in their sugar syrup […] (231)

At that time — nightfall — the white flowers were roasted, made gold by their own perfume; you could almost eat them, they looked like little dough balls, candies. (233)

This eternal world is ultimately a stagnant world, and it is no accident that so many unnatural deaths occur — there is no other possible way out for the lives that throb in such a tiny space. This is a world that creates, but also kills.

The translator, Jeannine Marie Pitas, has previously worked on di Giorgio, and she lived for long periods in Uruguay to investigate the author’s work. Although di Giorgio’s simple vocabulary doesn’t always have an elegant English equivalent (i.e. masita as ‘little dough balls’), the bilingual edition of selected poems is generally devoted to drawing out the meaning and rhythm of the original. It’s possible that this deep engagement even ends up altering the poems in a manner more comfortable for English-language readers, shortening sentences, adding clarifying phrases, and adopting simplified punctuation where the original was complex or abstract. For example, Marie Pitas translates di Giorgio’s phrase,

Y por el jardín, un caballo, alto, negro, que parecía ya muerto, la abstracción de los caballos, iba y venía, con una diadema de rubíes bien ceñida, que centelleaba con el sol y en el rocío; y una voz dijo: “Esa es la guerra”; y nosotras lo mirábamos asombradas. (148)

as:

And in the garden one tall, black horse—he looked like he was dead, the abstraction of a horse—ran back and forth with a crown of rubies fixed tightly on his head, shining in the sun and the dew, and a voice cried out, “This is war.” And we—the women—stared at him in shock. (149)

Here we see the sentence split up, the semicolons replaced by commas, the commas switched out in their turn for dashes, and — as occurs several other places within the text — a phrase added that does not appear in the original Spanish, namely, “the women.” These are possibly legitimate translation choices, but such cleaning-up does have the effect of making di Giorgio seem a much neater, more staccato writer in English.

What motivations lie behind the chaotic, sinister loveliness of di Giorgio’s invented worlds? Humor isn’t di Giorgio’s strength, but it would be a mistake to read her entirely seriously. As the translator writes in her endnotes, hers is arguably also a world of camp. A degree of irony exists in the kitsch and heavy use of diminutives, an irony that doesn’t quite manage to be comedy. Fair enough, but it does all make one crave earth and salt. My favorite phrase of di Giorgio’s has nothing to do with her abstractions of wind, sugar, and roses, but is simply the strange mention of “the farms of tomatoes and blue beans” (229).

di Giorgio, Marosa. I Remember Nightfall. Tr. Jeannine Marie Pitas. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017.

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